One of Hollywood’s more talented and watchable stars on screen was sullen, strikingly stick-thin 50s actress Jan Sterling who didn’t quite reach the top echelon of stardom but certainly ensured audiences of a real good time with her sexy pout and flashy style in soaps, film noir and saucy comedy.
Jan was born Jane Sterling Adriance in Manhattan in 1921 to a well-to-do family. Her father was a prominent advertising executive who divorced her mother when the girl was only eight years old. Her mother remarried (to an oilman) when Jan was still a youngster and the family relocated abroad where Jan was schooled by private tutors in Brazil, then later in London and Paris.
Although both sets of parents disapproved, Jan, who by this time possessed a strong British accent, set her sites on acting and was eventually enrolled in Fay Compton’s dramatic school in London. A strong-minded young lady with a heartfelt passion for the arts, she returned to Manhattan to conquer Broadway and by the age of 17 had found her first ingénue role in “Bachelor Born,” playing (naturally) a young British lady. Over the next 11 years, Jan dominated Broadway as proper British ladies while billing herself as “Jane Adrian”.
One of her highlights was working with the legendary Ruth Gordon in 1942 in Gordon’s first play entitled “Over 21.” As Billie Dawn in the Chicago company of “Born Yesterday,” Jan bowled over the critics and seemed almost a shoo-in to do the 1950 film version but she lost out in the end to Judy Holliday. The ash-blonde broke quickly into films supporting Oscar-winning Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda (1948) in a key, emotional role.
To her absolute delight, she left the docile, ladylike image behind her and was allowed to dig her nails into a florid array of cheap floozies, hard-bitten dames, and lethal schemers and stood out well with ‘bad girl’ parts in the films Caged (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Flesh and Fury (1952), The Human Jungle (1954), and Female on the Beach (1955). In between she occasionally made a nicer, or at least a more sympathetic, impression in the movies Sky Full of Moon (1952) and The High and the Mighty (1954), the latter earning her an Oscar nomination.
Married to and divorced from actor John Merivale in the 1940s, Jan later married gruff film star Paul Douglas in 1950. The couple moved away from the Hollywood scene in Burlington, Vermont. The couple appeared together professionally on occasional TV shows and Douglas revived his “Born Yesterday” Harry Brock role with a stage tour starring Jan in the Billie Dawn part. It and they were a solid hit.
Jan’s career slowed down considerably after the sudden death of her 52-year-old second husband in 1959. He suffered a massive heart attack at their Hollywood home. She refocused on stage and TV but at a slower step. Incidental filming occurred on occasion, including support roles in Love in a Goldfish Bowl (1961) and The Incident (1967). She also involved herself in humanitarian causes. In the late 1960s she moved to London, England and in the 70s, she entered into a strong personal relationship with actor Sam Wanamaker. An isolated film role came her way with a small part in First Monday in October (1981). They never married but stayed together until his death in 1993.
Inactive for nearly two decades, Jan made an appearance at the Cinecon Film Festival in Los Angeles in the fall of 2001, still charming audiences at the age of 80. On 26 March 2004, she passed away at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. She was 83.
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